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date: 18 November 2019

Summary and Keywords

From classical antiquity onwards, writing about life after death has consistently served as a situation for questions of literary theory. The locations of the afterlife are hypotheticals and counterfactuals; they are the site of theory itself. Questions about authorship, for instance, have been articulated through the myth of Orpheus (in the forms recorded by Virgil and Ovid). The story of Orpheus tells of a poet who must go into the underworld to find the material for a tale of survivorship and loss, raising questions about the sources of creative inspiration, the art of trauma, and the suffering of the authentic artist. Dante’s imagined structures of an afterlife, in which punishments fit crimes with an apt poetic justice, have similarly been enlisted into one of the most important theoretical debates of the 20th century between formalists and historicists. The afterlife as a supplement to life’s time has also been used as a way of thinking about temporality and the implications for narrative as a literary mode that works with and through the philosophy of time. One of the most influential aspects of the literature of the afterlife to resonate in literary theory has been the ghost story. In its greatest manifestations, from Hamlet to The Turn of the Screw to Beloved, the ghost story forces its readers to acknowledge those elements of the past that refuse to be laid to rest, and it has therefore served as a vehicle for psychoanalytic questions about how processes of individual or collective memory are depicted in literary texts. In poststructuralist theory, the notion of the hauntological has also built its concepts in dialogue with earlier literary ghosts and become a way of thinking about language and its uncanny slippage between presence and absence. Subsequent critical work continued to develop hauntology into a way of understanding temporality and cultural history. Finally, the notion of prosopopoeia, or the voicing of the dead through writing, is perhaps the most far-reaching way of understanding the prevalence of dead voices as a literary trope, which reflects something of the processes of reading and writing themselves. The afterlife has therefore been a crucial source of generative metaphors for literary theory, as well as a topic and setting with an important literary history.

Keywords: ghosts, death, hauntology, heaven, hell, descent, contrapasso, katabasis, spectral, uncanny, prosopopoeia

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